From the Scribd page:
For all of her days, Reta Winters has enjoyed the useful monotony of happiness: a loving family, good friends, growing success as a writer of light fiction, novels ‘for summertime.’ This placid existence cracks open one fearful day when her beloved oldest daughter, Norah, drops out of life to sit on a gritty street corner, silent but for the sign around her neck that reads ‘GOODNESS.’ Reta’s search for what drove her daughter to such a desperate statement turns into an unflinching and surprisingly funny meditation on where we find meaning and hope.
Warmth, passion and wisdom come together in Carol Shields’ remarkably supple prose. Unless, a harrowing but ultimately consoling story of one family’s anguish and healing, proves her mastery of extraordinary fictions about ordinary life.
Unless was the last book Carol Shields published before her death, was nominated for a number of fiction awards, won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and was a Canada Reads finalist. So it’s a pretty big deal. Up until this point, the only other works by Shields I have read are The Stone Diaries and her Jane Austen biography (both of which I thoroughly enjoyed). That said, though, I will fully admit that the only reason I read this was for Random House’s CanLit #ReadingBingo challenge this year. It is not something that I would’ve ever picked up otherwise, but I was looking for something for the Giller nominated square, and this one not only sounded like something I would enjoy, it was also one of the books available as an audiobook on Scribd.
Shields has written a beautiful main character in Reta, who you can see is slowly and subtly coming to terms with why her daughter ran from home. While it appears on the surface she is holding it together, through letters drafted but unsent you can see some passive aggressiveness and snarkiness getting more and more apparent. The development of Reta is pretty major, perhaps more evident because the story does skip around in time and isn’t necessarily all told in chronological order. At times Reta seems somewhat insufferable, but when you really see how Norah’s departure is affecting her, Reta becomes vulnerable and extremely easy to empathize with.
It was perhaps more interesting to see how Reta’s mother-in-law, husband and other two daughters were dealing with Norah living on the streets because it was less introspective and we see it from Reta’s perspective. Shields has done an amazing job at crafting such completely different and yet completely well developed characters throughout this story. Even though the book is really about Reta, and Reta is the narrator, I especially love that we could look at the lives of 3 different generations of women, and how all of them are equally but completely differently affected. Each feels Norah’s disappearance in a completely different way, and it’s both heartbreaking and revealing to understand how this changes the dynamics between them all, as well as their own views on the world.
The narration was quite good for this book, though I will admit that I feel like I missed a bit in my consumption of Unless by listening to it on audio instead of physically reading. This is one of the first audio books that I’ve read so far like that. It’s a beautifully written novel but is slow paced (which suits this novel completely). For this reason, I found that my concentration on the book wasn’t always what it is for printed books. I feel like I may have missed out on some things with this – especially because the Scribd description mentioned that this is a “funny meditation” but I didn’t find that at all, and am wondering if I had had read it, if I would have discovered those funny parts.
Or maybe the marketing blurb isn’t fully correct and it isn’t “ha ha funny,” but more “amusing funny.”
Aside from me not finding this funny, though, it was a VERY good book. A very touching book, and a very positive feminist novel.
I didn’t think the story of Norah itself was going to be resolved at all. But within the last chapter, we hear why Norah dropped out of school and set up shop outside Honest Ed’s… it was a little bit less traumatic and less of a mystery than I had been expecting, and I actually kind of wish that the mystery was left unresolved. Yes, all the loose ends are tied up but this is one case where I wish it was a little more open ended.
As far as CanLit goes, I was pleasantly surprised with Unless – I typically expect super depressing and hard to get into stuff when it comes to CanLit. This wasn’t either, and felt a lot more lightweight than CanLit typically is.
Overall, I think what this book does best is providing a wide variety of characters that all show growth and development over the course of the novel.
The Bottom Line
Recommended for someone looking for a good women’s lit book. I don’t think I’ll read it again, but it’s reminded me that I quite enjoy Shield’s work, so I’ll probably be open to finding more of her works to read.